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Jury says Luna eligible for execution
By Joseph Ryanand Stacy St. Clair | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/15/2007

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Jurors decided today that Juan Luna's role in the Brown's Chicken murders makes him eligible for execution, but there are growing indications the panel may have a hard time determining whether to actually put him to death.

After an unexpected five and a half hours of deliberations over two days, the jury agreed with prosecutors that the notorious slayings in 1993 included multiple killings and were committed during the act of armed robbery, two of 20 legal factors that can be proved to mete out death.

But the twelve jurors didn't come to unanimous agreement on whether Luna actually killed anyone in the Palatine restaurant or if the murders were cold and calculated. The jury only needed to agree on one of the so-called mitigating factors to find Luna eligible for death.

The decision's announcement at about 11:20 a.m. was far less dramatic than Luna's conviction last week after a 14-day trial. Luna, his family and the victims' relatives all showed relatively little reaction today. But one juror, a young mother, was visibly upset as the verdict was read. She also wept during last week's verdict.

Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan warned all in attendance to keep their emotions in check.

"[The jury] has a job ahead of them and I don't want anyone to influence them," he said before the decision was read.

The defense and prosecution teams are barred by the court from talking to the media, but the lengthy deliberations and apparent disagreements over facts of the case could bode well for Luna. Most eligibility deliberations are viewed as perfunctory and can be as short as 30 minutes.

The trial now shifts into determining whether Luna should get the death penalty. The jury will hear testimony from both the victims' relatives and Luna's family over the next day or two. Then the panel will have to decide unanimously that he should be executed or the judge will determine a sentence.

It took about 12 hours of deliberations last week for jurors to convict Luna of taking part in killing seven people in the Palatine Brown's Chicken restaurant.

Under state law, the prosecution did not have to prove whether it was Luna or alleged accomplice Jim Degorski who actually killed the people to win a conviction. The law says that Luna's assistance in the murders makes him equally culpable.

Luna said in a 2002 videotaped confession that he slit co-owner Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat, but he blamed all the actual killings on Degorski.

Degorski will be tried separately and he has pleaded not guilty. He, too, could face the death penalty if convicted.

The defense is expected to argue over the next few days that Luna was an unwitting accomplice in the most gruesome crime in Chicago suburban history - as he claims in the confession.

Even relatives of the victims are torn over whether Luna should be put to death for killing their loved ones.

Members of four of the victim's families have spoken out against giving him the death penalty, whether because it is against their religion or they think it is an easy out for Luna. The relatives of three other victims want Luna executed.

On Tuesday morning, the large Luna family, which has attended every hearing, was joined by the family of teen victim Michael Castro at a candlelight vigil opposing the death penalty in front of the Cook County courthouse.

The impact of these opinions, however, may be minimal. It is not clear if the jury actually saw the vigil and they are barred from reading newspapers or watching TV reports on the trial.

The victims' relatives and Luna's family are also prevented from directly telling jurors during testimony if they want the death penalty for Luna or not.

Still, the panel's indecision on whether the crime was cold and calculated or if Luna even killed anyone reveals serious disagreements over critical facts of the case.

The prosecution has argued Luna and Degorski planned to "do something big" the night of Jan. 8, 1993 when they walked into the Brown's Chicken restaurant with pockets full of bullets. Two old high school friends testified that Luna was excited about the crimes and boasted to them about slitting Ehlenfeldt's throat and shooting Degorksi's .38-caliber revolver during the robbery.

DNA and print evidence also tied Luna to the scene.

The defense argued that Ehlenfeldt's throat was cut after she was fatally shot in the head and that all the evidence and testimony against Luna was trumped up.

In arguing against Luna's eligibility for the death penalty, defense attorney Stephen Richards told jurors capital punishment should not be an option because prosecutors can't know exactly what happened 14 years ago.

"All of this is sheer speculation," he said Monday.

Richards also asked jurors to stand strong for their convictions in the jury room during deliberations.

"At the end of the day, each one of you holds Juan Luna's life in each of your hands," he said.

The victims also include co-owner Richard Ehlenfeldt, Thomas Mennes, Rico Solis, Guadalupe Maldonado and Marcus Nellsen.

sstclair@dailyherald.com

jryan@dailyherald.com